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Economic and dam related articles

Safe Spill Levels Detailed

by Chris Mulick, Herald Olympia bureau
Tri-City Herald, January 29, 2004

OLYMPIA -- An analysis performed by a trio of federal agencies agrees that summer spill operations can be curtailed at federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers without harming fish returns.

Anticipated losses -- as many as 19,000 fish in all but only 24 listed as endangered -- could be more than offset by a series of other actions that cost far less, according to the report. Spilling water over dams prevents it from being run through turbines to generate electricity that could be sold.

Eliminating the July and August spill program would save Northwest ratepayers an average of $77 million annually -- almost 2 percent of the Bonneville Power Administration's budget. Put another way, program costs will total $3.1 million for every listed fish it saves.

The order of magnitude is not substantially different from a separate analysis performed by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council last year. Its calculations suggested continuing the summer spill program would cost $7.6 million per listed fish.

The primary difference between the two is the federal agencies -- the BPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries -- assumed a 2 percent smolt-to-adult survival rate, twice what the council used.

The agencies are expected to decide in March whether to curtail the spill program.

Completely eliminating it doesn't appear to be a likely outcome. The spill program is the backbone of the federal government's "aggressive nonbreach" fish recovery strategy designed to boost runs without removing dams. Eliminating it in July and August figures to be politically difficult.

"The tribes are flatly opposed to any reduction in spill for any portion of the federal spill program," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. He said the numbers the agencies produced were "in the realm of credibility" but criticized the proposed offsets for reducing spill, saying they would only "mitigate for lost mitigation."

Short of completely eliminating the program in July and August, utility groups are hoping for a scenario that would save an average of at least $50 million annually. The agencies' analysis provides six possible scenarios for changing current spill practices. Eliminating spill in August only would save $42 million on average.

The report details seven different programs designed to offset any reduction in spill. The most expensive would cost $6 million annually, though the rest would cost no more than $1.4 million. Those costs would be subtracted from whatever savings are gained by curtailing spill.

"You could easily make up for even no spill for a little more than $1 million a year," said Shane Scott, a fish biologist for the Public Power Council, which represents Northwest public utilities. "Dams do kill fish but there's many other causes of mortality out there. There's many opportunities we're not taking advantage of."

Some of those options include expanding efforts to harvest salmon predators, increase efforts to stabilize flows in the Hanford Reach and adding new habitat improvement projects.

Hudson called it a list of "half measures" that would not guarantee a boost to fish survival that would adequately make up for curtailing spill.

"We want to see biological substantiation," he said. "We don't see that here."

Actual savings from curtailing spill would vary from year to year, depending on runoff levels. Wiping out spill in August would save anywhere from $25 million to $50 million, according to the analysis. Eliminating it in July and August would save between $55 million and $92 million.

Chris Mulick, Herald Olympia bureau
Safe Spill Levels Detailed
Tri-City Herald, January 29, 2004

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